Karma is a word one runs across more and more these days. It’s too bad it is almost always misused. Somehow in English it has come to mean “fate” or “destiny” (American Heritage Dictionary). This is an unfortunate, if inevitable, distortion, because in its original Buddhist context karma is a concept of unparalleled profundity and significance.
The word karma simply means “action” and is derived from the verbal root kr which mean “to do” or “to make.” There are three distinct senses of the word here, and what renders the concept unique is that all three are inseparable aspects of the same process. We may be used to thinking of (1) the decision to do something as one thing, (2) the action carrying it out as another, and (3) what we make thereby, or the result of the action, as being something else again. But in Buddhist understanding these three are parts of the same whole. Intention is the leading edge of karma, directing the activities of body, speech, and mind to act in ways that accumulate, at its trailing edge, karmic formations or dispositions. Action, in other words, is preceded by a sort of “doing” in which decisions are made and results in a sort of “making” in which a unique personality is constructed. The main idea behind karma is thus the relationship between what we choose to do and what we thereby make of ourselves.
This can perhaps best be seen when the word for action is used simultaneously as a verb and a noun, as in the expression sankharam abhisankharoti (Samyutta Nikaya 12.51). There are many ways this can be put into English, such as “one forms formations,” “one constructs constructions,” “one creates creations,” or “one fabricates fabrications.” You get the idea. When action is enacted, so to speak, it involves both the activity of building something and the product of that activity, something built. An image sometimes used to convey this in the texts is of a potter at his wheel. The potter is engaged in the creative process of shaping the clay according to his will, and when the pot is cut off the wheel and fired in a kiln it remains as an enduring artifact of that activity. So also our character, our personality, our very self, is viewed in Buddhist thought as a gallery of ossified karmic relics, the accumulated residue of earlier dynamic processes of intention and action.
With the outward focus of most Western thinking, we are used to the idea of making choices in response to shifting worldly circumstances, and to the fact that our actions result in changes to our environment. From this perspective, a great emphasis is placed upon what it is we do, and on whether or not our actions are effective in bringing about the external changes we intend. The Buddhist tradition, however, is more interested in the internal dimensions of action. Here the more important questions include “What effect on our own well-being are our decisions having?” and “How are we being changed by our actions?” What we do, from this point of view, is far less important than how we do it. Karma is primarily concerned with how we shape ourselves, and how we are shaped by ourselves, through action.
The self is plastic, a malleable clay being molded each moment by intention. Just as our scientists are discovering not only how the mind is shaped by the brain but now, too, how the brain is shaped by the mind, so the Buddha described long ago the interdependent process by which intentions are conditioned by dispositions and dispositions in turn are conditioned by intentions. The actions that make up the tangible expression of our lives are merely a go-between, as the world we construct is a mere offshoot, of who we are ever re-becoming.
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